We Probably Shouldn’t Let Big Companies Use Kanye West’s Antisemitism for Clout

West has faced serious consequences for his antisemitism, and rightly so. But we need to talk about why it took so long for companies to respond to his problematic behaviour.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Oct 28 2022

12 mins read

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<p>Image: instagram.com/kimkardashian</p>

‎I know a lot has gone down over the past week, so a quick recap: Following a slew of antisemitic comments, Kanye West has lost business deal upon business deal. On Tuesday, Gap released a statement distancing itself from the rapper, who now goes by Ye—and unsurprisingly, this was inspired by his antisemitism. When their working relationship ended in September, West said he had terminated the deal, but now, Gap seems to be implying that the decision was more mutual than initially reported. The retailer criticized his “recent remarks and behavior… Antisemitism, racism and hate in any form are inexcusable and not tolerated in accordance with our values” and said it would be removing all Yeezy product from physical stores and shuttering its e-commerce site. Also on Tuesday, Adidas announced it was cutting ties with him, following days of pressure from consumers. In a statement, the company said it “does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. Ye's recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company's values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness.”

The same day, Foot Locker instructed staff to pull Yeezy products from its shelves (though, to be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Yeezy anything at Foot Locker…), Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald and Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown both announced they would be leaving the rapper’s sports marketing agency, Donda Sports, and he was dropped by his divorce lawyer, Camille Vasquez, who gained notoriety for her role as one of Johnny Depp’s lawyers during his libel case against Amber Heard, and who had signed up to represent him just a few days before.

On Monday, his talent agency, CAA, dropped him as a client, and last Friday, Balenciaga announced it would be ending its working relationship with him. A planned documentary about his life and career has been shelved, stadium shows have been cancelled and his school closed its doors, though it’s unclear if that’s permanent. (A mystery: who are the parents trusting their children’s education to the man who said slavery was a choice???) Vogue has “no intention” of ever working with him again, countless celebrities have spoken out against him and he’s even getting less radio play, though his streams remain mostly unaffected. All told, his antisemitic comments have knocked his net worth down to an estimated $400 million from $6.6 billion in 2021.

And this is all totally correct and justified. 

Kanye West deserves every single one of these consequences

West’s current foray into antisemitic rhetoric started with a two-part interview on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in early October. According to Vox, “Ye made provocative insinuations about Jews and money and went on unprovoked tangents. His unsettling statements suggest he is growing increasingly paranoid, adopting a range of bizarre conspiracy theories and delusions, and harboring growing antisemitic tendencies. As disconcerting as the interview itself was, Vice later reported that Carlson’s show strategically edited it to make Ye’s remarks appear more coherent and less antisemitic than they apparently were… [But in reality,] Ye was being straightforwardly antisemitic here, embracing one of the oldest, most bigoted conspiracy theories—that Jewish people secretly control the world’s systems of finance.” (This false and dangerous perception is also commonly applied to the media and entertainment industries.)

‎He followed that up with several antisemitic social media posts, including one that said, “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 [sic] on JEWISH PEOPLE.” Then, on October 16, he appeared on Drink Champs, where he took aim at “Jewish media” and “Jewish Zionists,” claiming that “Jewish people have owned the Black voice” and that “the Jewish community, especially in the music industry…they’ll take us and milk us till we die.” (The episode was quickly taken down.) He continued in this vein in an October 17 interview with Chris Cuomo, when he said there is a “Jewish underground media mafia” and that “every celebrity has Jewish people in their contract.” 

As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains, these are all extremely common—and extremely harmful—antisemitic tropes “about alleged Jewish control of money and financial institutions… Overall, Ye's suggestions about Jewish people, holidays and the monetary implications of the two lends credence to the baseless idea that Jews can leverage their power for insidious purposes because of the stronghold they have on financial institutions.” And, this isn’t the first time West has pulled made antisemitic statements. In 2013, he gave a radio interview where he said, “Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people.” In general, his statements, then and now, play into the idea that Jewish people secretly control the world—and can therefore be blamed for economic crises and all manner of social ills. 

‎Unsurprisingly, white supremacists love West’s comments; “other extremist groups, including White Lives Matter and the Goyim Defense League, have leveraged Ye’s comments to further their own agendas and inspire new propaganda campaigns,” explains the ADL. This is particularly troubling because according to data from 2020 (the most recent year we have stats for), hate crimes are on the rise in Canada and the U.S. Incidents related to religion did decrease in both countries, but Jewish people remain the religious group most likely to experience a hate crime. In fact, in Canada, “hate crimes targeting the Black and Jewish populations remained the most common types of hate crimes reported by police, representing 26% and 13% of all hate crimes, respectively,” according to Statistics Canada. So… the stakes are pretty high, is what I’m trying to say.

But we shouldn’t ignore the racism and misogynoir at play here

However… I’m curious why companies like Adidas, Gap, Balenciaga and whoever made that shelved documentary about West didn’t find his behaviour dangerous enough to cut ties before this month. Because, let’s be real—he has been spouting all sorts of abusive, anti-Black and deeply harmful nonsense for years. In 2013, he sold merch featuring a Confederate flag on his Yeezus tour, a deliberately controversy-courting move that he explained by saying, “the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song, ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?” (I understand that he’s trying to utilize the concept of reclamation here, but using the flag was a marketing ploy more than anything else... and also, this quote is basically a word salad.) In 2015, he responded to his ex-girlfriend, Amber Rose, commenting on then-wife Kim Kardashian’s sex tape by implying she was dirty, saying, “by the way, it's very hard for a woman to want to be with someone that’s with Amber Rose. I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim.” 

‎In 2018, he denied the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade, saying Black people chose to remain enslaved for 400 years. He also claimed Harriet Tubman didn’t free any enslaved people and instead “had the slaves go work for other white people.” That same year, the casting call for his Yeezy Season 4 show asked for “multi-racial women” and he went all-in on the alt-right, meeting with Donald Trump in a MAGA hat and praising Candace Owens for saying that Black Lives Matters supporters were “pretending to be oppressed for attention.” In 2020, he went on an anti-abortion rant (and spread misinformation about abortion and Black people) on Nick Cannon’s podcast and also, oh yes, ran for president. And in 2021 and early this year, he carried out a loud, misogynist and frankly abusive campaign against Kardashian via his social media profiles. (Also, his former publicist tried to pressure a Georgia election worker to confess to falsely engaging in voter fraud—which, sure, wasn’t him but also doesn’t look great, you know?)

The thing is, he first started working with Adidas in 2013, and apparently nothing I said in the previous two paragraphs was bad enough to jeopardize their professional partnership. He signed a 10-year deal with Gap in June 2020, well after he’d started loudly and proudly spewing hate speech. And it’s not just companies he has a formal working relationship with. This week, Peleton announced that it would no longer be using West’s music in its new classes and wouldn’t resurface old classes that used his music to members, and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum removed his wax figure from public viewing, saying, “each profile earns their place at Madame Tussauds London and we listen to our guests and the public on who they expect to see at the attraction”—but neither company worried when he was disrespecting Black people and dismissing Black struggles. As Stereo Williams wrote in the Daily Beast in 2018, West believes Black people are “are perpetrators of [their] own victimhood; that [they] are amoral and materialistic,” and he has happily adopted white supremacist talking points to make that argument. Why didn’t Peleton or Madame Tussauds respond like this then?

We have to hold companies accountable for what they let slide in the past—and how they’re using West now

‎The answer to that is simple: because these companies don’t actually care about antisemitism, or racism for that matter. They care about their bottom lines, and they are making business decisions to protect their profit margins. West has tipped into un-bankability, which isn’t defined by morality as much as it is the consequence of a balance sheet that weighs potential sales against public outcry. As a society, we have largely agreed that antisemitism is a moral wrong that we won’t tolerate—which means a critical mass of consumers won’t buy their too-expensive jackets and ugly foam shoes from companies that co-sign someone who espouses these ideals. But we unfortunately live in a racist, white supremacist society that has not yet made that same agreement when it comes to anti-Blackness and misoynoir. So, when West was only shitting on Black people, and especially Black women, businesses didn’t see a compelling case for cutting ties. It’s math, not values.

Of course, West’s supporters and defenders hold some responsibility here. Many fans, including plenty of racialized people, have long insisted that he is a free thinker and provocateur who isn’t actually racist and instead playing some kind of long game, which helped show these companies that there would be no financial consequences for continuing to work with him, and in fact would likely bring massive financial benefits. (When he successfully appealed to Trump to intervene in A$AP Rocky’s case during the latter’s incarceration in Sweden, it helped legitimize the idea that he had a larger plan.)

‎But I don’t want to let these companies entirely off the hook. For starters, it’s 2022; by now I think we’ve learned that unfettered growth and the unrelenting pursuit of profit are short-sighted goals that contribute to climate change, oppression, and burnout, so maybe they should be making values-driven decisions. Also, many fans—and racialized people who aren’t fans—saw West for what he really was years ago, and said so. I mean, Black cultural critics, and especially Black women, have been calling out West’s anti-Blackness for at least a decade now! Many hold-outs had stopped supporting him after the ‘slavery is a choice’ comments, which is also when Trump supporters began infiltrating online fan communities.

But perhaps most importantly, these businesses are using West as a marketing tool, and that makes me uncomfortable. I obviously don’t want to diminish the impact of his words and actions, because they are profoundly damaging. But I also think we have to acknowledge that, while mental illness cannot make someone antisemitic or racist, this man is not well, and it's beginning to feel cruel to continue giving him attention—especially because companies like Madame Tussauds or Weight Watchers using him as an example/punchline isn’t about fighting hate as much as it is a way to signal virtue. In a way, it’s not that different from Candace Owens cajoling West into buying her husband’s failing social media platform, or Twitter’s new daddy, Elon Musk, excitedly holding him up as some free-speech prophet.

‎So yes, I still believe the kindest thing we can do is to look away from West—but when it comes to his collaborators, business associates and the companies that are using him to score progressive (or conservative) points, we should be actually paying even closer attention to what they say about him. After all, decrying antisemitism, offering sensitivity training and saying they won’t tolerate racism is a good first step, but we should also think critically about why they are making those decisions. What inspired them to speak out now, what are their true motivations and do they hold everyone to the same standard? Or put even more bluntly: would they denounce bigotry in this way if they couldn’t do it publicly and for praise?


And Did You Hear About… 

Angelica Jade Bastién (who, as an aside, is one of my favourite critics ever) on Brangelina.

The quote tweets on this viral Twitter thread 😩.

Hannah Sung’s beautiful meditation on BTS, fandom and finding your place.

Emmanuel the emu and the lesbian farmer/avian flu/racism drama that I spent a little too much time thinking about this week.

This excellent, super informative piece on Iran’s secular shift, and why polling hasn’t been able to capture it in the past.

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